Being a historian is a bit like being a detective. A simple inscription on an old broken memorial led me to piece together a fascinating story about human endurance. The main cemetery in Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey contains the grave of a relatively young Irish explorer, now largely forgotten, who helped save a major expedition to the African Congo in the nineteenth century and guide it back to safety.
Joseph August Moloney (1858-1896) died at the early age of 38 of a heart problem, which his close friends and others believed was due to his experiences in Africa. Moloney (see photo) had recently returned to Kingston, after leading an expedition in 1895 to plant the British flag in territories to the west of Lake Nyassa, on behalf of the British South Africa Company.
In its story on the surprise death of Moloney, the local Surrey Comet newspaper reported that Moloney’s illness was ‘no doubt’ brought on by the privation he suffered when he was engaged as a Medical Officer (MO) on an earlier expedition to the Congo in 1891. It was this expedition, known as the ‘Stairs Expedition’, which provided me with some fascinating insights into a tale of adventure and high risk.
Moloney, who was born in Newry, Ireland, and studied medicine at Dublin University, practiced as a doctor for several years in south London. However, perhaps in search of something more challenging, he offered his services as an MO to the Stairs Expedition, which was led by a British Army Officer, William Stairs, and sponsored by Belgium. Moloney’s account of the expedition was later published in in his book With Captain Stairs to Katanga (1893), and was also outlined in a paper he gave to the prestigious Royal Geographical Society in 1893.
It is evident from this material and other archive sources that Moloney was instrumental in saving the Stairs Expedition from disaster. Captain Stairs, who had been involved in several expeditions to Africa, had obtained permission from the British War Office to command the Belgian Katanga Company Expedition (the ‘Stairs Expedition’) which, backed by the Belgian Government, left for ‘Katangaland’ in May, 1891. The Katanga territories lay at the heart of the Congo and were rich in copper deposits; as part of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ the area had seen some intense rivalry between European states but also, at certain junctures, some cooperation as well, especially between Britain and Belgium. State-sanctioned companies often employed soldiers to ruthlessly wipe out any local tribal opposition. The Katanga Company, an international syndicate, was a good example of this.
The Stairs Expedition, with Stairs as leader, Captain Bodson as second-in-command and the Marquis de Bonchamps as the third officer, also included Thomas Robinson as the carpenter and Joseph Moloney as the MO. The five Europeans were supported by a native caravan of 336. The column set off in June, 1891, marching through various territories and, on October 9th, encamped at a French mission station. From that point onwards, the Expedition took on a much more dangerous nature, passing into largely unmapped areas of mountains, tropical rain forests and crocodile-infested rivers.
At one stage, the Expedition ran out of food, while violent thunderstorms often put out the camp fires at night. After five months of marching, the Expedition encamped near Bunkeia, which was the capital of the tribal Kingdom of King Msiri. Stairs hoisted the Belgian flag to claim the area for King Leopold’s Congo Free State. However, a bungled attempt to capture King Msiri ended in the native chief being killed, while the Expedition’s second-in-command, Captain Bodson, died from wounds inflicted by Msiri’s slaves. Moloney took a major risk to retrieve Bodson’s body under fire.
Further misfortune occurred. Stairs became very ill, so it fell to Moloney to start negotiating with the local tribes and buy time, which he did successfully by concluding fifteen separate treaties. Christmas, 1891, though, brought further misery. The native porters had scoured the countryside for food but it became very clear that none was available. For the next three weeks, the Stairs Expedition had to exist on a diet (to use Moloney’s own words) of ‘leaves and grass, varied by fired locusts and ants’. Fever, hunger and desertion reduced the caravan down to 200 people. The Marquis de Bonchamps caught fever and, according to Moloney, both Stairs and Thomas Robinson also ‘lay at death’s door’.
In early February, 1892, Stairs decided that the Expedition would have to retrace their steps and try to return to the coast and to safety. This was extremely difficult because the rains had dramatically altered much of the landscape, making much of it swamp water, which they reluctantly had to wade through while the sun above took its toll. Many of the native porters died, and the four remaining Europeans were all sick with fever.
It was largely down to Moloney, who effectively took command, that the Expedition finally made it back to a Portuguese port (‘Vincenti’) on June 3rd, 1892. Shortly after this, on June 9th, Stairs died. In his memoirs, the ever-loyal Moloney was generous in his praise of Stairs, but later critics suggested that Stairs had been too brutal in his conduct towards the natives and incompetent in some of his decision-making. Moreover, when the Royal Geographical Society met in June, 1893, to hear an account of the Expedition, they decided that Moloney had been ‘the backbone of the expedition’, acting bravely under fire, using his diplomatic skills wisely and, against tremendous odds, he had managed to lead the dying men back to safety.
While care must be taken not to convert Moloney’s career into a ‘Boy’s Own’ style romantic adventure, the historical evidence suggests (to me, at least) that the modest Dr. Moloney was an astute and brave individual, who managed to show leadership in circumstances that would have defeated many other people.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)
Note: Much of the above was first published in my article for Ancestors, no. 73 (2008)